The 3-Fold Word of God

After lots of questions last night about the 3-fold Word, I thought it might be useful to repost this old post from a few years ago on the Word of God.

Surely everyone knows what the Word of God is – the Bible is the Word of God! Yet, ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). And when Paul and Barnabas were on their first missionary journey, newly saved Gentiles ‘glorified the word of the Lord’ (Acts 13:48). The Word ‘grew mightily and prevailed’ (Acts 19:20). And the Word of the Lord gets preached and spoken a lot in the Bible too. Sometimes people even do things ‘by the Word of the Lord’ (e.g. 1 Kings 13:1) without that particular Word of the Lord being written down in the Word of the Lord! Confused yet? 

So, the Bible is the Word. Yet Jesus is also the Word. And preaching and prophesying are the Word too. (For ease, let’s just group preaching and prophesying together as proclamation.) But the Bible isn’t Jesus, Jesus isn’t proclamation, and proclamation isn’t the Bible. So what is the Word? 

Lest you think I’m just trying to confuse you today, here’s something that will hopefully help – the concept ofthe threefold Word. Basically the idea of the threefold Word is that the Bible, Jesus and proclamation are distinct yet inseparable. The Bible is a book about Jesus which is to be proclaimed. Jesus is the subject of Scripture and the content of true proclamation. Proclamation, if is to be true Christian proclamation, is proclaiming Christ biblically. The three go together. 

So, we don’t have three different words; they’re all saying the same thing. The threefold Word is a unified Word that comes to us in three forms. 

Okay, okay. So maybe this threefold thing sounds interesting. We know that Scripture is the Word of God, and we know that Jesus is the Word of God. We’re probably even willing to say that prophecy is the Word of God. But preaching? How can preaching be the Word of God? 

These days we tend not to talk like that so much about preaching. Instead we seem to talk of ‘explaining the Scripture’, ‘sharing what the Lord has laid on your heart’ or something else that sounds a lot less than ‘the Word of the Lord’. Yet, in the past, Christians weren’t afraid to talk of preaching as the Word of God. Perhaps most famously, the Second Helvetic Confession declares that ‘the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.’ That might sound rather bold and daring to us today, but it wasn’t at all for Reformation times. Luther said that ‘the office is not the pastor’s or preacher’s but God’s, and the word which he preaches is likewise not the pastor’s or preacher’s, but God’s.’ Calvin put it like this: ‘When a man has climbed up into the pulpit it is so that God may speak to us by the mouth of the man.’ 

How could they say such things? Well, because that’s what the Bible says. Think about Matthew 10:40 where Jesus says to His disciples, ‘he who receives you, receives me, and he who receives me receives Him who sent me.’ Jesus isn’t simply talking about hospitality. If you’re not sure, then flick over to a parallel in Luke 10:16 – ‘He who hears you hears me, he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects Him who sent me.’ People who reject the words of Christ’s messengers (that’s you and me when we share the gospel with them) are actually rejecting Christ. Those who receive our message don’t just receive a message about Christ, they receive Christ. 

Hebrews speaks of the elders as those ‘who have spoken the word of God to you’ (Heb. 13:7) Paul writes to the Thessalonians about how they ‘received the word of God which [they] heard … not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God’ (1 Thess. 2:13). The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. 

So does that mean that every time someone stands up in a pulpit their words are somehow magically transformed into God’s words? Is it some sort of oral transubstantiation? Not at all. It’s easy enough for someone to get up in a pulpit on a Sunday morning and speak nothing but their own words. And it’s also an uncomplicated matter for any of us to speak the Word of God on a Wednesday afternoon to a friend over coffee. It’s not about location, formality or time; it’s about proclaiming Christ biblically. That’s how we know our word is God’s Word, when we proclaim Christ biblically. Anything else isn’t the Word of God. 

God’s Word is a threefold Word. Jesus is the Word. Scripture is the Word. And proclamation (in preaching, prophesy and sacrament) is the Word. And when you’ve got these three together, what you’ve got is the Word. So, on a Sunday morning, the true ministry of the Word is proclaiming Christ biblically. That is the Word of God. 

(By the way, lest anyone try to dismiss the threefold Word as ‘Barthian’, Luther taught it, as did D.P. Williams. Just because Barth said something doesn’t make it wrong!)